With all those gleaming, stainless-steel tools readied for painful prodding, few people look forward to visiting the dentist.
But modern dentistry is a walk in the park compared with archaic methods of treating oral maladies:
Be glad you’re not seeking treatment for mysterious “tooth worms” or using dentures filled with the syphilitic teeth of dead soldiers.
“By the time Washington was elected president, he only had one natural tooth remaining in his mouth.”
“Dentistry, as we understand it today, didn’t emerge as a licensed profession until the end of the 19th century, although practitioners had been calling themselves dentists since the late 1700s,” says Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, who studies the history of science, medicine, and technology, and is the creator of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.
Before dentistry became its own field, tooth-related issues were handled by any ordinary doctor, though little was understood about oral health and the reasons teeth might decay.
The important role of healthy teeth wasn’t lost on the ancients: Since at least 3000 B.C., people in the Mesopotamian region used the frayed ends of fibrous twigs or chew sticks, also known as miswak or siwak sticks, to clean their teeth.
“Different cultures have used twigs from trees and shrubs with wood grain that is very intertwined,” says Scott Swank, a dentist, historian, and curator of the National Museum of Dentistry.
“You peel the bark off and chew it to get the fibers to fray out, and then you use those frayed fibers to clean your teeth. They’re still used today in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.”